Mayor Michelle Wu detailed her housing plan priorities for the new year on Tuesday, outlining an agenda to examine some policies that advocates have long said thwart Boston’s ability for meaningful change, especially in a city where rents have risen faster than the towering buildings changing its skyline.
“The cost of housing is among the biggest barriers to being able to stay and thrive in our city, and it is the No. 1 concern I hear from our residents day in and day out,” Wu said during a press conference at City Hall.
In short order, Wu gave a synopsis of her “big picture” housing initiatives, including a study of the city’s existing Inclusionary Development Program requirements — which apply to buildings of 10 or more units that require zoning relief — and market conditions that set benchmarks for how much affordable housing is to be included in new developments.
Right now, 13 percent of units in new construction must be deemed affordable — a threshold advocates and activists have long decried as falling short of generating the kind of needed change to adequately address the region’s housing crisis.
Wu said the city’s forthcoming study will look at how the city could “achieve or exceed 20 percent affordability.”
Her administration, separate from that study, will also consider reducing the number of units that trigger those regulations through an executive order.
“You could look at any ZBA agenda and there are so many nine-unit proposals because people know that or developers realize that there’s a strict cutoff there,” Wu said. “And so as we’re looking at infill development in our neighborhoods, and the opportunity to really link resources that are badly needed with the growth and development of our communities, that is one option that we’re analyzing very closely.”
Wu also pledged to form a “rent stabilization advisory group” to be charged with researching rent control policies in other cities and making recommendations to Wu’s office for a potential home rule petition to be filed with the state Legislature.
Sheila Dillon, the city’s chief of the newly renamed Mayor’s Office of Housing, said the group will be announced in January.
“I think it’s going to be the most sought-after committee that we’ve ever had in the city,” Dillon said.
Rent control has been outlawed in Massachusetts for nearly three decades. Any rent control policy would require sign-off from state lawmakers, and is expected to be an uphill battle: Gov. Charlie Baker said in October he’d likely forgo signing any legislation for the city to reinstate the practice.
Still, Wu’s announcement on Tuesday signaled she is moving forward with making good on a campaign promise to explore and push for the option in Boston, where the median rent for a studio apartment is $2,250, according to a recent RentHop report.
“What the mayor has announced is finally the direction and the moral certitude coming together saying that we are putting housing first,” said City Councilor Lydia Edwards. “It is not about developing the city. It is about housing people in the city and the two are not mutually exclusive. But they have, for some reason, not been meeting each other.”
Also on Wu’s list: Diving into the city’s “linkage fees.” The administration will study various ways to potentially increase the funding the city receives through those fees from new development to support affordable housing.
Under the current law, developers of new commercial developments over 100,000 square feet that require relief from zoning bylaws are required to pay into the city’s linkage fund to help create housing and job training programs.
“The goal is to ensure that the wealth and opportunity in the city is shared by all and that our growth sustains and stabilizes our communities,” Wu said.
Former Mayor Marty Walsh increased the city’s linkage fees by 42 percent before leaving office in March, raising fees to $15.39 per square foot, with $13 going towards affordable housing and $2.39 to workforce development.
Dillion said the planned study of the fees will also include whether the city should lower the square footage threshold that triggers linkage payments, the required timing of the linkage payments, and whether lab developments have “unique financial conditions that would allow them to pay more.”
“It’s exciting to see this is going to happen,” Cortina Vann, of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, told reporters. “We know that this can be essential to helping to meet the (city’s) needs.”
Additionally, Wu said the city has already started an audit of city-owned properties to find parcels where supportive and affordable housing could potentially be built. The initiative will be completed within her first 100 days in office, she said.
Wu will also seek a revised home rule petition to launch a transfer fee — a fee on real estate sales above $2 million — to support affordable housing creation. The measure, according to Wu’s office, would also include property tax relief for senior owners.
“Housing is in crisis. It’s is a crisis in our city and our region,” said Vanessa Calderon, chief executive officer of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, a community development corporation based in the South End. “We all recognize that and beyond these doors, you talk to people and they talk about the same thing: Housing is an issue. This is an opportunity to solve this problem.
“I also believe that we all can agree that we can solve the housing crisis in the City of Boston,” she said. “And the announcements that our mayor is making today is precisely the kind of move that we need to solve the problem.”